Tribute to a fallen friend, mentor

  • Article by: RON HAGGSTROM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2013 - 12:24 AM

Revered New Prague coach Matt Shetka died Dec. 9, and his gymnasts are performing well despite their sorrow.

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Doug Amundsen celebrated with Marissa Ekness after a fine beam routine. Amundsen took over the New Prague gymnastics program after coach Matt Shetka’s death.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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After finishing runner-up in the 2012 Class 1A gymnastics meet, New Prague was off to one of its most impressive starts under longtime coach Matt Shetka. The No. 2-ranked team compiled a score of at least 143 points in its opening two victories.

Two days later, on Dec. 9, the popular coach who built the program from its infancy died unexpectedly of a heart attack while shoveling snow in front of his home. He was 54.

The news stunned the community of New Prague, where he had spent all 33 years of his teaching career, earning a reputation as intelligent, demanding and caring, whether in the classroom or the gym.

"The first couple of days were really hard on all of us," Trojans senior Jaimie Niedermayer said. "None of us could do anything at practice."

Such a dilemma would not have been acceptable under Shetka. His New Prague teams won state titles in 1984, 2001 and 2003. The Trojans have been state runner-up seven times and are the only program to win championships in both Class 1A and 2A.

"It was a very helpless feeling around school on that Monday," New Prague activities director Brad Skogerboe said. "We all lost a great friend, and the kids lost a mentor. We all wanted to do something to help, but nothing could be done at that point except being there to support each other."

'Had a way to relate to all kids'

Shetka demanded the most of everybody he met in an intelligent and caring way. He simultaneously built the gymnastics program into one of the state's elite, slightly twisting his teaching techniques to achieve success in coaching.

"I think the two [teaching and coaching] went hand in hand with Matt," Skogerboe said. "He was an awesome teacher as well as an awesome coach. He had a way to relate to all kids."

That helps explain why his death was especially difficult for students, athletes, colleagues and family members inspired by him throughout his life.

Shetka kept himself in great shape and was a picture of fitness. He started coaching gymnastics in 1980, the year he began teaching. He most recently taught social studies in middle school.

"He was a storyteller as a teacher," junior Sarah Hoffman said. "At practice, it was more about giving advice. He was more intense in the gym."

"I really couldn't believe [his death]," Niedermayer said. "It was really hard to get used to not having him around. ... He had a way of getting everybody to understand what their potential was, and how to reach it. He always had a lot of enthusiasm in whatever he was doing."

It rubbed off on his athletes as well as his students, who were suddenly left reeling by his death.

"We started out the season very strong," said Doug Amundsen, who was an assistant coach under Shetka for 22 years and was named his replacement. "It was our strongest start to a season ever. Then, we had a major setback when Matt died. It took a toll on all of us."

Regrouping, starting over

Nine days after Shetka's death, the gymnasts returned to the New Prague Gymnastics Club, where Amundsen is the director, for their first meet. It compiled a team score of 142.075, the lowest mark of the season, in a victory over Waconia.

"It was hard going back to the club," Hoffman said. "It was a lot different. It wasn't as upbeat all the time like it used to be."

The two-week holiday break before the next meet gave Amundsen and the team's other assistant coach, Nikki Fischer, a chance to regroup.

"We basically had to start over because we lost one-third of our coaching staff," Amundsen said. "We had to revamp our practices."

The tandem was now being counted on to spot team members who they hadn't worked that closely with in the past. Fischer, in only her third year with the team, also worked with Amundsen in the club program.

"She has been an incredibly phenomenal asset," Amundsen said. "There is no way I could be doing what I am now without everything she is doing behind the scenes."

Fischer has not only helped with spotting the gymnasts, but has also helped run the club in town while Amundsen has turned his attention to the high school program.

Amundsen said, "She has helped me stay organized."

'Up to us' to make him proud

The break also gave the New Prague gymnasts more time to reflect on Shetka's life, and think about what he would want them to accomplish without him.

"He always wanted his teams to be good," said Trojans senior Jessica Niedermayer, who is Jaimie's identical twin. "He applied all of his knowledge to make our team the best it could be. Now it's up to us to make coach Shetka proud."

The Trojans have looked like a more determined group starting the new year. In their four meets after the break, they have posted their four highest scores of the season. That includes a season-best 146.4 in winning the New Prague Invitational.

"I think after awhile they started realizing what Matt would want them to do," Skogerboe said. "It's a great group of girls. He would want them to continue on and achieve the goals they set for the season."

Shetka's attributes in building a successful gymnastics program also carried over to the girls' golf team. He guided them to two state championships and was instrumental in building that program as well.

"Good coaches realize it's not about them, it's about the kids," Skogerboe said. "That's the way Matt was, always saying he was fortunate to have good kids. I would disagree with that to a point. Sure, he always had good kids ... but they also had a great coach."

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